Progress. That’s what farm­­ers continue to make as they implement practices to improve our state’s water quality through the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy (INRS).

The INRS is a collaborative, research-based strategy for im­proving water quality with progress measur­ed and re­­ported by third party researchers initiat­ed by the Iowa De­­partment of Agricult­ure and Land Stewardship (IDALS), the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and Iowa State University (ISU).

New DNR evidence

The latest evidence of progress, and a solid one, came earlier this month when the DNR released its annual report on impaired waters in the state. 

For the first time in the report’s more than two-decade history, there was a decline in the number of impaired bodies of water in the state that require a watershed plan, also called a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL). The decline was 6%. The report also showed a 7% decline in the overall number of water body impairments.

In addition, the DNR said it removed 99 bodies of water from its list of impaired waters that needed a watershed plan. That was the most the DNR has ever removed during a two-year reporting cycle. 

The reasons for being re­­moved from this list vary. It can be that a general watershed plan has been developed for local residents to refine and implement. (There were 47 bacteria-reduc­tion plans developed by the DNR in one major river basin.) Or it could be that there’s been an improvement in the water or that new data has been collected or incorrect numbers were amended.

Those are impressive numbers, and while the job is far from complete, they show that collaboration is working and the trends appear to be moving in the right direction.

The impaired waters data can be added to plenty of other evidence of water quality progress over the years, and especially since the INRS was adopted in 2013.

Progress on phosphorus

A recent ISU update on the INRS shows that decades of conservation work on Iowa farms has slashed phosphorus losses from Iowa fields by 22% since the 1980s and early 1990s. That study’s data dovetails with 2015 data that shows soil erosion in Iowa is down 28% over the past three decades. Both pieces of data are proof that Iowa is on the right track on phosphorus and close to meeting the 29% reduction goal outlined in the strategy.

Now, farmers and their part­­ners at ISU, in state government and in agribusiness are applying the same proven approach that  worked to reduce phosphorus losses to address Iowa’s nitrogen challenge. 

To trim nitrogen losses, farmers are using an array of innovative and scientifically verified practices outlined in the INRS. A key one is planting cover crops, which ISU research shows can reduce nitrogen losses by approximately 30% or more. 

Last year’s cover crop numbers are still being verified, but the Iowa Nutrient Research and Education Council showed that in 2018 farmers planted more than 2 million acres of cover crops — a 26% increase from the previous year and an astonishing increase when you consider that the state’s farmers planted fewer than 10,000 acres of cover crops a decade earlier.

Farmers are also ramping up their use of other tools to reduce nitrogen losses. 

A good example of that is a boom in the restoration of wetlands, which can significantly reduce nitrogen losses from field drainage. Over the next three years, more than 30 wetlands in high-priority watersheds will be added to the Iowa landscape through programs managed by IDALS and funded through the INRS. That’s quite an increase, considering that IDALS efforts had only restored 90 wetlands over the past 15 years.

Farmer interest

Iowa farmers are showing tremendous initiative in learning about the science of improving water quality. Last year, more than 540 collaborative outreach events drew more than 50,000 attendees. 

Local, state and federal governments are also pitching in on the efforts to improve water quality. The total state and federal funding for all INRS-related efforts — including education, outreach, research and practice implementation — was at least $560 million, a 9% increase from the previous year. 

The Iowa Legislature has con­­tinued its commitment for Iowa’s water quality initiative, allocating $10.5 million in 2019. Those funds were in addition to the increased funding from Senate File 512 (the long-term, $270 million in sustainable funding for practices in the INRS). More DNR watershed plans for local residents and farmers means a continued need for these funds in the future.

Continuing efforts

Farmers, and the entire American economy, have endured a difficult and turbulent year in 2020. But I’m confident that Iowa farmers will continue their efforts to improve water quality in 2021 and beyond.

We’re not done. We know that water quality improvements will require time and sustained effort. At the same time, we will continue our long-standing efforts to reduce soil erosion. But by working together — farmers, businesses, municipalities, government officials and others, we are producing verifiable results, and through the INRS, it’s clear we are on the right track.

Hill is a crop and livestock farmer from Warren County and president of the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation.